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Posts Tagged ‘Ben Palmer’

Frequent visitors may have noticed that I routinely refer to romantic comedy films as belonging to ‘the world’s most predictable genre’, and I occasionally wonder if I’m not doing them a disservice there. Sure, the outcome is never in doubt, but the same is true of virtually every other genre: in fact, you could probably argue that the very notion of genre carries with it a certain degree of predictability.

It may be I’m just letting my own personal prejudices show. Still, I try to keep an open mind, so I went to see Ben Palmer’s new film Man Up, mainly on the strength of a good trailer and the presence of the usually-reliable Simon Pegg. Despite being top-billed in a film which has, shall we say, an androcentric idiom as its title, Pegg is not playing the lead here: that duty goes to Lake Bell. Why is a film about a woman called Man Up? Join me on a strange journey where not all words mean what you might expect them to.

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Bell plays Nancy, a thirtysomething whose disastrous relationship history has left her on the verge of giving up on romance entirely. However, a chance encounter on a train and a misplaced self-help book result in her accidentally purloining a total stranger’s blind date. He is Jack (Pegg), and the two of them hit it off so well that Nancy can’t quite bring herself to own up to the misunderstanding, even though she is technically supposed to be going to her parents’ wedding anniversary party.

Needless to say, all does not go to plan, and unfortunate encounters with obsessive old school friends and embittered ex-spouses lead to more than a few ups and downs in the course of their evening together. It transpires that neither Nancy nor Jack is quite whom they are presenting themselves to be, but should they let that get in the way of the connection they so obviously share?

That’s a rhetorical question, obviously. On paper Man Up does look very much like yet another crack at the same rom-com formula which British production companies have been diligently hammering out variations on for over twenty years now: an appealing, largely metropolitan setting, imported American female lead, supporting cast of well-known faces, many of them off TV (Rory Kinnear, Sharon Horgan, Ken Stott and Harriet Walter do most of the heavy lifting here), a climactic dash to deliver an impassioned emotional declaration, and so on.

This is by no means a perfect movie, but it has more about it than just a tick-list of required components. For one thing, Lake Bell may be American, but not least of her achievements in Man Up is the way she employs an immaculate English accent. I must confess I’d never heard of Bell before this movie, but she seems to be one of those annoyingly talented people who’s good at everything. We are, of course, required to believe that a stunning ex-model should have severe self-doubt and finding-a-boyfriend issues, but this is practically a genre trope, and Bell puts across Nancy’s vulnerability well. I expect Bell has the kind of looks which are routinely described as ‘striking’ or ‘strong’: quite what this is code for I’m not entirely sure, but she is an extremely beautiful woman by any rational standard.

Bell also manages to share the screen with Simon Pegg for most of the movie without finding herself being acted off it, which is also no mean feat. I would say Pegg is part of an honourable tradition of British performers who aren’t just great comedians, but great actors too: all of Pegg’s best roles address the emotional frailty and humanity of his characters, an element he plays absolutely straight, and Man Up continues this. One of the appealing things about the film is that both lead characters are pretty messed up, spending as much time squabbling as they do being, you know, actually romantic. Like all the best films of this kind, it doesn’t operate solely in terms of chocolate-box romance, but explores darker territory as well. As a result, it genuinely earns its climactic emotional pay-off between the two leads. I would say that Pegg hasn’t has such an effective foil since Jessica Stevenson in Spaced, but that might just make Nick Frost annoyed with me (not to mention Tom Cruise).

On the other hand, if Man Up is honestly a ‘romance’, that’s another word the meaning of which seems to have shifted a bit of late. Again, I expect the producers would describe it as ‘frank’ or ‘authentically contemporary’, but what this actually means is that various characters spend a slightly surprising amount of time discussing oral sex in a reasonably detailed way. I couldn’t help thinking back to Four Weddings and a Funeral, when Hugh Grant’s saturation F-bombing in the opening sequence felt genuinely shocking – it now feels like the product of a different and much more innocent world.

But hey ho. Such is the world in which we live. As well as the above, Man Up also has an undeniable ingenious and sharp script with some genuinely witty dialogue, and it manages to juggle all the required genre elements with sufficient skill that they at least feel relatively fresh. Parts of the plot do strain credulity a bit – Rory Kinnear’s character in particular has an absurd, cartoonish quality –  and there is at least one over-laboured sight gag, but I laughed a lot all the way through and found myself genuinely wanting the two leads to get together. That, if nothing else, is the sign of a successful film, in this genre at least.

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The study of cinema is not an exact science, but if we were to view the great mass of films as though they were the living things of planet Earth, it offers interesting scope for comparisons (obviously, or I wouldn’t be doing it). Much as we have the two great kingdoms of life, the plants and animals, so we have the two major kinds of film, fictional and documentary. Within these we have the great genres, ancient, well-established groups: comedy, drama, horror, action. Some of these are healthy and well-loved, but others cling on from decade to decade, in apparent defiance of all logic. As a case in point, I offer to you a film subgenre that as far as I know is almost uniquely British: the TV sitcom spin-off movie.

Was ever a genre so ill-loved? The very mention of it is bound to bring on dark mutterings of Mutiny on the Buses and the Are You Being Served? movie. And yet films of this kind keep getting made: not as many as thirty or forty years ago, true, but still one every few years. And to their number we must add the movie version of The Inbetweeners, directed by Ben Palmer.

The Inbetweeners is a massively and deservedly popular TV show in the UK, concerning itself with the lives of four young male friends united mainly by the fact that they are all idiots: there is snobbish faux-intellectual Will (Simon Bird), pathological liar and borderline sex pest Jay (James Buckley), utter imbecile Neil (Blake Harrison), and easily-agitated master of the ill-thought-through romantic gesture, Simon (Joe Thomas). The film finds the boys’ days at Sixth Form college drawing to a close, and after a few final words of encouragement from their psychotic head teacher (Greg Davies) they decide to celebrate in time-honoured style by going on a lads’ holiday to Crete, in the hope of finally finding some girls who are prepared to spend time with them.

That’s about it, plotwise, although there is a running thread about Simon’s continued infatuation with his ex from back home, who also happens to be staying at the same resort. Even this brief plotline may be enough to set alarm bells ringing for older readers – ‘all the characters go on holiday together’ was the scenario for a couple of particularly egregious offenders in this field back in the seventies, and has become such a cliché that it was referred to in The League of Gentlemen spin-off movie. This movie gets away with it, though, simply because going away on this kind of holiday seems an entirely natural thing for teenage boys to do.

It’s very easy to become rather snobbish oneself when talking about The Inbetweeners, going on about the ironic distancing provided by Will’s voiceover, its forensic dissection of the self-sabotaging behaviour of young males, and the fact that it’s fundamentally an acutely-observed comedy of manners and embarrassment. All of this is true, but the most obvious things about the show are its relentless profanity, debauchery and filthiness, and the fact that the writers don’t seem to be aware that anything resembling a taste barrier even exists. One gets the impression, listening to some critics, that they’re enjoying it for the appropriate reasons, while the mass audience also watching it are just there for the gross-out jokes, which constitute a lesser form of entertainment. I don’t know; I think the show is deceptively well written and performed but at the end of the day we’re all laughing at the same things.

Anyway, fans of the show will be pleased to hear that it’s very much business as usual here. I was curious to see that the movie is rated for 15s-and-older in the UK (I’ve seen a man attempting to smuggle his clearly under-age grandson into a screening, which may tell you something about the reach of this movie), as the DVD releases of the TV show are for 18s-and-older. This might give the impression the movie is a more respectable, restrained piece of work.

Do Not Be Fooled. The language is even fouler here than on the small screen, and the film-makers have enthusiastically explored some of the possibilities of comedic male nudity (I would say it was ballsy of the lead actors to go along with this, but…). In other ways, though, the transition to the big screen is more significant in that the running time of the story has been boosted from a compact 25 minutes to an expansive 100.

The TV show at its best works by briskly getting the characters into an excruciatingly embarrassing and/or humiliating situation, which forms the climax to that episode. At its end they all go off, no wiser or better equipped for the following week’s story. You can’t really adapt that formula for a movie and the writers haven’t tried – instead, they’ve fallen back on a trusty old three-act structure concerning the lads meeting some girls, falling out with each other, learning things about themselves along the way, and so on. (Deftly woven into this are a large number of obscene jokes, of course.)

For me it worked reasonably well, aided enormously by the performances of the four leads (James Buckley is, as usual, particularly good) – it may not quite match the heights attained by such timeless moments as ‘Help, we’ve caught a fish’, ‘He was looking at me when he did that,’ or ‘I don’t like the way he keeps making eye contact’, but it’s consistently amusing throughout and there were moments which had me literally breathless and weeping with laughter. I suspect it will help if you’re a fan of the TV show and go in well-disposed towards it, though. On the other hand, the shift in locale does mean there’s hardly any Mr Gilbert (one of the TV show’s most reliably funny characters) in the movie – I get the impression most of his scenes have been cut. Beyond this, the only real brick I can throw is that, for a film based on a show that was unstintingly realistic about the likelihood of teenage idiots getting anywhere with girls, the fact that the plot revolves around our heroes repeatedly meeting a quartet of attractive and obliging female counterparts did seem a little too good to be true (for some reason, the fact that the girls are visibly in their late twenties is much more obvious than it is in the – so-called – boys’ case).

The odd moment excepted, The Inbetweeners’ small-screen origins are not difficult to discern, but I can’t see that harming this movie much. Even with the TV show now officially over, it and the characters remain enduringly popular and there’s a great appetite for this film (it outperformed Cowboys & Aliens on the weekend both films opened in the UK). It shouldn’t disappoint anyone, even if it trades on the reputation of the TV series rather than appreciably adding to it. The most guiltily pleasurable of guilty pleasures.

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